Friday, March 23, 2018

Charles Holdefer's Reading of George Saunders' Pastoralia

I recently read a book-length discussion of George Saunders’ Pastoralia by Charles Holdefer, the author of four novels and a collection of short stories entitled Dick Cheney in Shorts.  Although Holdefer currently lives and teaches in Europe, he is originally from Iowa and graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He has published short stories and essays in many places, including the New England Review, The Antioch Review, and The North American Review. I met him a few years ago at a conference on the short story in France.
Holdefer’s book on  Pastoralia is one of a series of books called “Bookmarked” published by the Independent publisher, Lg Press; the series is described as a “no-holds barred personal narrative detailing how a particular work of literature influenced an author on their journey to becoming a writer, as well as the myriad directions in which the journey has taken them.” Earlier books featured in the series include John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
It is unusual to encounter an entire volume devoted to one’s personal engagement with a book of fiction, especially a book of short stories. When an interviewer asked Holdefer  about the structure of the book—which devotes separate chapters to an analysis of each of the stories in Pastoralia, accompanied by a related personal story and some reflections on relevant social or philosophical issues—Holdefer said he thought the “personal readings” premise of the Bookmarked series was a good one, “because when you love literature, it is first and foremost personal. Not professional, not some sort of exercise.”
George Saunders is one of my favorite short-story writers, and I have posted several blog essays on his stories and his essays. In many ways, one of the most perfect examples of the short story as a form in Pastoralia is "The End of FIRPO in the World," in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Saunders said he used to think that the artist had an idea he or she wanted to get and then sort of dump it on the reader.  Now, he knows that really doesn’t produce anything; it is condescending. When you study writing, Saunders said, there’s this intentional fallacy that the writer has a set of ideas and the story is just a vehicle for delivering those ideas. He says his experience has been totally the opposite. “You go in trying not to have any idea of what you are trying to accomplish, praying that you will accomplish something and respecting the energy of the piece and following it very closely. Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, "like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant," I usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll." 
I very much like Saunders' ideas about the essential short story characteristics of mystery, ambiguity, the process of discovery, and human sympathy in the title essay to his collection The Braindead Megaphone. Consider the following:
“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.  If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”
I like the way George Saunders talks about short stories, and I also like the way Charles Holdefer talks about short stories. Consider the following:
Appeals to history, cause and effect, verisimilitude: those are the novel’s bread and butter.  But a short story operates in a different economy. Some weird or terrible event (there are plenty of them in Pastoralia) is not naturalized or expanded in the novelistic manner; there simply isn’t the space to do so.  But rather than feeling like less, the result can feel like more, with an immediacy that is not possible in the spongier, discursive narrative dough of a novel.
A finely wrought short story is more than a miniaturist artefact, a cute little piece of scaled craft.
It’s a trip to another space, another way of seeing.
If you appreciate the short story as much as Saunders, Holdefer, and I do, you will find Holdefer’s reading of Saunders’ Pastoralia a pleasure.  This is not an academic engagement with Saunders’ short stories--although it is a profoundly intelligent one--but a deeply personal interaction.  Indeed,  as you read it, you might sometimes feel that you are learning as much about Holdefer as you are about Saunders.  But, as much as I value sticking close to the work when I write about short stories, usually refusing to wander about in contexts, I have to admit that when I was teaching in the classroom, I often tried to interest my students by giving them an example of my own personal identification with a story. And indeed, if the teacher or the reader/critic does not have a passionate personal encounter with the work, then what the hell’s the point of reading fiction and then talking about your experience with others? Why should they care?
I recommend George Saunders’ Pastoralia: Bookmarked to you. I have read it with pleasure, for it is always a pleasure to read good writing about good reading. The book is available in a Kindle edition on Amazon for $9.85 and in a paperback edition for $10.37.

1 comment:

Han said...

Just want to let you know I am deeply indebted to all the insights you give into the short story, and hope you will be able to update more in the near future!